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The Namesake

The Namesake: A Novel
Jhumpa Lahiri

I just got back from a week long trip to Chicago. This time, it's for business reasons, not personal. Thus, the week has been long and tiring, meaning I'm too mentally drained to come up with a clever title for this post.

I've wanted to read The Namesake ever since I saw the previews for the movie, starring Kal Penn. For those of you who don't know, Kal Penn is Kumar from Harold and Kumar goes to White Castle – a hilarious movie which I'd recommend. But, I actually became a real fan of Kal Penn when he appeared on Law and Order: SVU. He played a serial rapist/killer. He managed to make the character at once creepy/disturbing and sympathetic, which I think takes some real acting chops.

Ok, back to the book. Ashima married Ashkosh in an arranged marriage. The pair then came to America, where Ashkosh is studying at MIT. They named their son Gogol, after a Russian author, Nicholai Gogol. The reason being - Ashkosh loves Russian authors and Gogol was pivotal at one point in his life. They also have a daughter, who was not a primary focus in the book. The book centers around Ashima, who hangs on to India with all her strength; and Gogol, who struggles growing up in America with neither an Indian nor American name.

Most of is well written. There was a lot of intruiging references to Indian/Bengali culture. For example, there is the good name, presented to the public; and the nickname, which children were first known as at home. Gogol ended up with his nickname as his good name due to a series of unforunate events. Also, Ashima never calls her husband by his first name, which is an intimate thing. The description of Ashima's life in America was interesting and I think, accurate. She develops a circle of Bengali friends, who all invite each other over and supports each other through major events such as births, and birthdays. During birthday parties, the adults are doing one thing and the children are off in another room doing something else. The way they start to celebrate Christmas with trees and presents for their children.

You get a sense that Ashima and Ashkosh grew to love each other. It seems a different kind of love though – quiet, respectful, steeped in tradition. But it is love nonetheless. But beyond the story of the arranged marriage, there is also the struggle Ashima faces leaving her home and her family to follow her husband to American. But, at some points, Ashima began to annoy me because it seemed she hung on to her culture and heritage so strongly that she refused to become American at all. In the end, you do see glimmers of Ashima and her growing to accept more of her life in America. She gets a job at the library and finds some American friends. But in the end, she is still inherently Indian.  

You also get a sense of life for Gogol. He grew up with his weird Russian name. He struggles with it at school, eventually changing it before going to college. At some points, Gogol became annoying to me as well because he tries so hard to push away his own culture. In the end, you do see glimmers of Gogol becoming more accepting of his Indian self. But, somehow, it wasn't enough.

As an immigrant myself, a lot of this book resonates with me. Coming to America as a young girl, I recognized my parents in Ashima and Ashkosh and I identified with Gogol in some ways. I remember the feeling of faint embarassment and frustration when my parents spoke with accents and didn't understand simple conversations at the grocery store. I remember not being at all interested in my own culture as a child. But eventually I grew up and I found my own way. I love my parents and I feel great affection towards them. I learned to be proud of my own culture and tries to celebrate the major holidays and to keep up the best I can.

This is why parts of the book annoyed me so much. Gogol's love for his parents is somehow eclipsed by his need to distance himself from them. And in the end, I'm not sure whether Gogol ever came to grips with himself. But maybe this is the author's way of illustrating the difficulties of finding your own identity as a child of immigrants who grew up in a different country. Whether Gogol will find his way is still a bit of a question at the end of the book.

Overall, I'd give the book a B. It is worth a read. I didn't love it. I sort of felt the book didn't come to its full potential. But it was overall a good read. And I definitely want to check out the movie when it comes out on DVD.


2 responses to “The Namesake

  1. janicu September 10, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Still haven’t read the book though I liked the movie. There was another review of this book that made me think that the movie was pretty similar, but this review makes me think differently. I think it’s similar somewhat in what you say about Gogol, but maybe not his parents. Joe’s another one who has read and liked this book.

  2. BookFiendO September 12, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    Yeah I definitely want to check out the movie. You should read the book and let me know what you think. I wonder if my view is skewed by the fact that I am an immigrant and thus may have certain expectations …

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